Dale End: Architectural vandalism

22 05 2007

Dale EndMany will know Dale End, especially the younger generations of today as it is the home of the Carling Academy, a popular haunt for many teenagers hoping to see some of today’s most popular bands. Go back 800 years and this was a popular site for the town too, who hoped to be accepted into a monumental priory dedicated to St Thomas.

Dale End is deep rooted in religious history. A little known fact about the site is the St Thomas Priory that occupied it for several hundred years. It was dissolved under the Tudor reign in 1536 and the buildings were destroyed in 1547. Prosperity here rapidly declined. There was no businesses wishing to set up on site and for 150 years, the site was littered with debris from the demolished priory.  Nothing is known of the architecture of the priory but as priories from long ago appear, it must have  been on a grand and impressive scale with brilliant architecture which we would no longer be able to achieve often in today’s society. It takes the most ambitious and those who have a bit of money to splash to really undertake something like this – and sometimes it fails such as the Millennium Dome.

It took John Pemberton to finally do something about the site who bought it in 1700. John Pemberton developed the site around Old Square and created a residential district there. The affluence in the area took off. In the 1700s, the Barley Market moved from the Bullring area to the junction of Bull Street and Dale End. In 1763, Sampson Lloyd and John Taylor established a private banking business known as Taylors & Lloyds on the site which would develop into Lloyds Bank. Old Square quickly became the hottest place in town for the rich. The houses were villas with bay windows and were two stories in height. They sat in rows to the square

Old Square was severely affected by the construction of Corporation Street beginning in 1873. The layout was completely rearranged but with it came benefits. New, grand buildings were constructed such as the impressive Grand Theatre. The architecture of the facade of the theatre was reminiscent of the theatre buildings being constructed in Prague which have now become international icons.

The actual site of Dale End was more of a backwater to the affluence and vibrancy being witnessed in Old Square. By the Victorian times, Birmingham’s centre was split into several parishes which later became wards for the council. Each of these had a church, of which many still remain such as St Martins, St Philips, St Pauls and St Thomas’ (though it is now no longer a church and more a monument). Dale End was the location of one of the churches – St Peters. It was described as a noble edifice and not much more. Connecting Dale End to Old Square was Lower Priory which was fronted by a chemical works and many public houses and hotels. Intermingled with all this was a conglomerate of residential properties which developed into slums.

Dale End needed a miracle if it were to rekindle the prosperity of before. That miracle (though it was a tragic one at that) in the form of World War II. Before the war, the site had become a commercial location with shops establishing themselves either side. However, it still retained an air of poverty and people still ignored the site in favour of Corporation Street and the Bullring. So, in came war and the Germans bombed Dale End to an oblivion. The entire street was cleared by the bombs and it experienced some of the worst damage in the city centre.

This heavy destruction set it up for post war development and it didn’t take long. First of all came the inner ring road. This bounded the site at the east and to the north through the construction of the Priory Queensway. One of the biggest acts of architectural vandalism was witnessed in the construction of the queensway – the demolition of the Grand Theatre. Of course it was met with tears and opposition but according to the ‘great’ Manzoni, it was had to go. Following this, in came the next blow – the expiration of leases for buildings on Corporation Street. This presented developers with an opportunity to grasp their own piece of business on the street.

So with these combined factors, Dale End was itself subject to postwar development and this came in the form of Sir Frederick Gibberd. He designed a brand new shopping precinct in the city which began construction in 1964. It was completed and opened in 1966. This Brutalist monster is there today. The concrete facade is featureless with the exception of natures additions of grime and stray vegetation growing in the cracks appearing in the surface. A smell lingers over the site – not helped by the shelter over some parts and lack of air conditioning.

On the opposite side of the road came the Dale House development consisting of a 1970s redbrick multi storey car park with a highrise office structure above it. The complex also presented ground floor retail units which were snapped up by Toys R Us in more recent years.

Today the two edifices remain, and they continue to draw in a trickle of crowds though not at the scale of the early days. Toys R Us have moved from their store in the centre. This is no surprise as anyone could tell you that it was always empty and that the site was enormous. Dale House is slowly being emptied. The markets in Priory Square are slowly shutting down, mainly because of lack of business. Argos is there but deteriorating. It is a sad story.

Luckily, wonder-developers, Birmingham Alliance, have purchased the site and aim to develop it into one of the biggest developments witnessed in Birmingham since the Bull Ring (also by the same developers). Martineau Galleries is to be the second phase to Martineau Place and will feature a major mixed use conglomerate of buildings. Offices will front Corporation Street whilst a pedestrianised piazza in the centre will be the centre of the retail units. The residential units will be located above these and in a 110 metre tower which will dominate the Priory Queensway. A cultural building will front onto Moor Street.

The development will breathe much-needed life into the area and hopefully should begin construction in 2008 when the leases expire. It should be completed around 2011. What is better is that the developers acknowledge the religious history on the site through the priory and St Peter’s Church. Archaeology will play a large role in the construction of the new buildings.

So when you walk down Dale End grumbling at the site of spotty teens raving over the next big band to grace the stage at the Carling Academy, remember that this has happened for centuries and that this place has been a vibrant centre for Birmingham for centuries. The priory is reflected through names of the buildings and roads in the area but little known about so I hope you know a bit more today!

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Sutton Coldfield Town Hall: A relic of municipality in a royal borough

9 05 2007

Sutton town hall facadeSutton Coldfield is probably one of the most unique of Birmingham’s suburbs in that it seems so much like a separate entity to Birmingham. Well, up until 1974, it was. Sutton Town Hall is a beautiful structure standing as a reminder to all lifelong residents of Sutton Coldfield that they once governed themselves.

Sutton Coldfield is known still, despite being incorporated into the City of Birmingham, as the Royal Borough of Sutton Coldfield. It’s history is certainly connected to the monarchy through land purchases. Wooded areas in Sutton have fluctuated between Chase and Forest with the name Forest being given to those owned by the Royal Family. This is largely forgotten now and most of the wooded areas have either been destroyed through the ever expanding area or protected in the vast expanses of the time capsule that is Sutton Park, the largest urban nature reserve in Europe.

Sutton Clock towerSutton Coldfield really grew in the 19th Century. The advent of the railways played such a major role in the prosperity of the town (though Bishop Vesey’s activities as Bishop of Exeter were also a key factor in the prosperity of the town) permitting industries to establish in the area. Sutton Coldfield followed the example of Birmingham in industry, undertaking various manufacturing processes – however, it was not rewarded with that of Birmingham which expanded absorbing various other boroughs and towns within it’s vicinity.

Sutton Hall facadeThe town was obviously proud to be part of the railway culture. It constructed a major railway station with ornate decorations. To make sure all visitors felt welcomed in the town, a grand hotel was constructed on a small right of land rising above the train station. The Royal Hotel, again reflecting the royal history of the town, opened in 1865 and immediately finances became a major problem. This is understandable when you look at the architecture. The railway station in Sutton was small compared to many others and the hotel was huge – obviously expecting a huge flow of visitors. They splashed out on the architectural features and internal decor, ignoring the fact that this was a make or break situation. As times passed, it became clear it was going to break and in 1895, it closed. For a short time the building was occupied by the Sutton Coldfield Sanatorium but in December 1901 was sold for £9,000 to the Sutton Corporation to serve as Council Offices.

The Sutton Corporation took the opportunity to refurbish the building and extend it. The fire headquarters opened first and a few months later in 1906, the main offices opened to a major ceremony consisting of performances for various local artists. It was undoubtedly a major highlight in the Sutton Corporation’s history.

1974 spelled an end of an era for Sutton Coldfield as it was moved into the newly created West Midlands Metropolitan County and became a part of the City of Birmingham. Many residents opposed this in the worry that they would lose their identity. This they may have lost and Sutton did lose a lot of light as a result of Birmingham’s focus of investment on the city centre and not on the suburbs – Sutton is still feeling the effects and is only just starting to pick up in the last few years.

The Sutton Corporation disappeared and the hall lost all use as offices. A section was used for neighbourhood offices, and still does today, but there was still a huge portion of the building requiring maintenance and general TLC. Well, it was reverted back to an old usage that it had been once before; a theatre. Between World War I and World War II, it was used as a theatre for the decommissioned soldiers and proved successful until its later years.

The town hall now serves as a theatre, social function venue, wedding venue and as neighbourhood offices for the Sutton Coldfield parliamentary constituency and for the four wards which it is associated with. Productions hosted by the town hall include those by the two local selective grammar schools; Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School and Sutton Coldfield Girls’ Grammar School.

Architecturally, this building does appear a bit of a mess from the front. It is clear to distinguish the 1906 from the original hotel. But upon close analysis, a certain beauty can be taken from the building. The windows are large and mismatched creating an interesting pattern on the façade. The clock tower is beautiful and to think that it was once used as a fire tower for the fire headquarters sounds like a crime! The building does not appear as a council building at all, but it does appear to be of a municipal nature.

Features which may interest the least-interested of visitors include the retention of the Sutton Coldfield Coat of Arms above the entrance. The arms have been absorbed into the Birmingham Coat of Arms but they were not removed from the building. They are engraved into stone and are losing the defined edges after years of wear.

The building should remain to make a positive impact on the landscape and now stands as one of three points on the skyline of Sutton Coldfield – Holy Trinity Church, Sutton Town Hall and Sutton Coldfield television mast. I recommend you take a visit to this building, especially if a production is to be unveiled there. The interior décor is intricate to say the least – yet another indication of Sutton’s royal heritage?





Birmingham town hall

5 05 2007

Birmingham Town Hall detailBirmingham Town Hall is one of Birmingham’s first real buildings. It is listed and is now an icon of Birmingham’s destroyed Victorian heritage.

Despite it’s name, it is in fact not a council meeting facility. In fact, it’s a concert venue. Well, it was and will be one again soon. The town hall has been around since the mid-1830s and was the work of none-other than the inventor of the Hansom Cab. It’s design is based upon that of a Greek temple and the sheer presence of the edifice impresses all. In the late 1900s, the building was closed following lack of maintenance and for a while it remained empty and unused. A multi-million pound restoration project commenced and through painstaking work, it was revitalised and given a new lease of life. Life it needed and Birmingham needed.

It now stands dominating the southwest of Victoria Square and the south of Chamberlain Square giving an iconic neighbour to the majestic council house. Hardcore sand blasting done in the most careful of conditions has revealed the very fabric of the building – Anglesey marble – in it’s greatest light. Before it was dirty. During it was covered in a large advertisement hoarding. After it was a spotless structure. It was even subject to the Complaints Choir as a result of the advertisements detracting from the architectural magnificence of the building.

Set to be opened formally in a two week long party in September, it is now symbolic of a history that Birmingham was all too ready to throw away in the 1960s. In many instances, it did.

And now for future generations, we can see the splendour of the building in a way that has not been achieved since 1836 following the work of another great architect who created England’s most iconic and administratively-prominent buildings – The Houses of Parliament.

It Brummies cannot be proud of this building, then they should be ashamed. If Brummies can’t even name the building, then they should not be classed as Brummies. That is a fact!